Davis, Robin Camille (2016). Nondescript: A Web Tool to Aid Subversion of Authorship Attribution (master's thesis). Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York.
Completed for the Computational Linguistics MA program.
Thesis presentation (slides & notes): presented June 1, 2016.
Davis, Robin Camille (2019). Obfuscating Authorship: Results of a User Study on Nondescript, a Digital Privacy Tool. White paper.
Presentation: How computers understand writing style — and what that means for privacy (slides & notes): presented November 2019.
Nondescript 2, under development.
Abstract: A person’s writing style is uniquely quantifiable and can serve reliably as a biometric. A writer who wishes to remain anonymous can use a number of privacy technologies but can still be identified simply by the words they choose to use — how often they use the words "of" and "and," for instance. Nondescript is a web tool designed first to identify the user’s writing style (in terms of word frequency) from a given writing sample and message, then guide the author to make iterative changes to their message to lessen its probability of being attributed to them. While Nondescript does not guarantee anonymity, the web tool provides a user with an iterative interface to revise their writing and see results of a simulated authorship attribution scenario. Nondescript also provides a synonym-replacement feature, which significantly lowers the probability that a document will be attributed to the original author.
More info: Nondescript uses Flask to generate the web interface. Input your writing sample and the message you wish to anonymize. Every time you run Nondescript, it randomly chooses 7 authors from a given background corpus to compare your writing to. This can take up to 60 seconds. (What's it doing during this time? In machine learning terms, every time you run Nondescript, it trains a Naive Bayes classifier on your sample and some writing by the 7 random authors, then runs the trained classifier on your message and other writings from the 7 random authors.) On the next page, you'll see if Nondescript was able to correctly attribute your message to you, or if you were able to confuse it into thinking it was written by someone else. At the bottom of the page, you'll have another chance to revise your message.
You may get a different result every time you use Nondescript, even if you don't change your message. That's because this is a simulation of de-anonymization. In a real scenario, you may not know whose writing your anonymous message is being compared to. Moreover, you can run Nondescript multiple times as a way of cross-validating the results of the final revision of your message.
Future work on this project will include a dedicated interactive public website that runs Nondescript.
Download & use
Requires a background corpus structured as a directory that contains at least 20 plain-text files, each containing at least 50,000 words and written by a single author. (I recommend the Blog Authorship Corpus from 2004.)
- Download all required libraries using pip: sklearn, nltk, wordfilter, numpy, flask, more_itertools.
- Open sources.py. Fill in the path of your background corpus.
- Create data files to reflect your background corpus, as specified in sources.py.
- Run compareform.py. This fires up Flask. Head to http://127.0.0.1:5000/ in your browser to use the web-based interface.
- compareform.py generates Flask web interface, handling input/output
- classifactory.py trains and runs the classifier, using submitted writing sample/message and randomly chosen documents from the background corpus. The classifier files are stored locally as a handful of files beginning with useclassifier...
- classif.py includes the classifier code and settings (uses sklearn)
- nondescript.py outputs new versions of the message using synonym suggestions
- sources.py defines where to look for the background corpus and related data files
- cosinesim.py, toponly.py, uniquefeatures.py are all used for compareform.py output (and sometimes elsewhere)
- data/ is where those related data files should go (sample files included)
- templates/ includes HTML files that Flask uses for the web interface
- static/ includes CSS file to style the web pages
Released under a Creative Commons BY-NC license (attribute all uses to me and do not use for commercial purposes). Please cite my thesis: Davis, Robin Camille (2016). Nondescript: A Web Tool to Aid Subversion of Authorship Attribution (master's thesis). Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York.